In recent years we have witnessed some substantial leaps in the civilian development of unmanned aerial vehicles for various uses – from assistance to command and control in such diversified fields as agriculture, construction, traffic management and urban information, through personal hobbies to independent development which, although unprofessional, is still highly dangerous, of platforms for transporting drugs or arms.
According to estimates of aviation authorities, about 30,000 (!) civilian unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to operate in USA alone by 2020. Civilian, namely – not including military vehicles or platforms used by national defense and security agencies.
The technological development momentum has not neglected this field. On the contrary – it led to a situation where UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have become readily available and accessible to everyone. The implication of this fact is that any interested party may, relatively easily, find and acquire a UAV possessing the characteristics and specifications that precisely match that party's needs and requirements. Moreover, these platforms are now fitted with easy-to-operate command and control systems (including automatic operation), which enable users to employ their UAVs operationally with no need for time-consuming training or prolonged hands-on experience.
The rapid technological development and the current situation in the civilian market have significantly increased the severity of the threats imposed on various installations and sensitive targets. These targets are currently vulnerable to a variety of potential attack methods. It should be stressed, even at this early stage, that the most severe problem necessitating a security solution involves the quadcopter platform category.
A commercial quadcopter model launched recently and regarded as a toy has a diameter of 4 cm. The entire kit, including the control and operation system, is the size of a wallet.
Several incidents involving quadcopters have occurred in the last year around the world, notably in Europe and the USA. November 2014 was particularly busy with such incidents. The French authorities confirmed that quadcopters operated by unidentified parties flew over 13 out of France's 19 nuclear installations. At around the same time, three incidents occurred at JFK Airport in New York, where quadcopters almost collided into a British Airways Boeing 747, a Delta Boeing 737 and a Jet Blue Boeing 737, while those passenger aircraft were on the approach to land. A month earlier, quadcopters were spotted over the Apple Campus in Cupertino, California. In 2015, this trend appears to continue and even intensify. In January, a quadcopter crashed on the White House lawn, near the President's quarters. This incident is regarded as a milestone in the way US authorities and security agencies regard the use of UAVs, as outlined below. A month later, the French government announced that unidentified quadcopters hovered during the night around five major tourist attractions in Paris – all considered national monuments. Another incident that should be mentioned in this context had occurred in Germany in September 2013, when, during a political rally, a quadcopter was flown to within 2 meters of the dais of honor occupied by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the German Defense Minister and other high-ranking officials. Other incidents include a drug-carrying quadcopter that crashed near the USA-Mexico border. That crash led to the spotting of the vehicle, and presumably many other similar incidents were never discovered. Other examples include attempts to smuggle contraband into prisons using quadcopters. Several such cases were discovered in Australia and Canada in 2013-2014.
The list of sample incidents outlined above represents only a part of the actual threats, scenarios and possible courses of action currently open to opponents in order to inflict damage on interests and sites that they regard as objectives for attack, whether they intend to inflict damage, whether they are terrorist organizations whose objective is to wreak destruction or criminal elements interested in material gains.
The inevitable question involves the solution for this 'new' threat. Before attempting to answer it, we should restrict the scope of the threat at least with regard to the current technological status of the existing vehicles. Most of the quadcopters currently available on the 'amateur' or 'hobby' market have a limited load carrying capacity – tens of grams up to 750 grams (the quadcopters Amazon intends to employ for their shipments are not included in the 'amateur' or 'hobby' category). The flight time endurance of these quadcopters is also limited to 15 to 20 minutes. Moreover – the range within which such a platform can be controlled is limited, and compels the operator to be present within the immediate vicinity of the area of operation. Additionally, most of these platforms are highly sensitive and easily affected by unstable weather conditions. However, these tactical reservations notwithstanding, the threat imposed by quadcopters on various targets and objectives must not be taken lightly. Security agencies should develop an effective solution as soon as possible – before we experience an attack that would recreate the 9/11 syndrome.
The aforementioned crashing of the quadcopter on the White House lawn led to an attempt to regulate UAV traffic in the USA. This attempt took the form of a comprehensive initiative involving the US Federal Aviation Administration, Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security and US Congress. Eventually, a bill was submitted to restrict the use of UAVs with regard to altitude, platform speed, operating environment and various other restrictions. The restrictions pertain primarily to commercial vehicles, but various measures were also initiated vis-à-vis those who fly quadcopters as a hobby, mainly with regard to improving their awareness of safety and binding flying restrictions. Similarly to the USA, France also initiated a process toward regulating and imposing operating restrictions, while stressing the ban on flying in specific areas. Some of the initiatives call for the programming of the GPS systems in the quadcopters of several manufacturers in such a manner as to prevent them from being flown in areas banned by the authorities.
Regulation and procedures, as important as they may be, must be supported by enforcement measures, and obviously, enforcing the directives faces substantial difficulties. This issue reminds me of a meeting I had once with the commander of a police at a certain major international airport somewhere – a work meeting in preparation for the opening of an El-Al station at that airport. In the context of the requests we submitted, I emphasized the need to prevent vehicle parking (so as to prevent access to car bombs) in the area close to the passenger check-in counters. The local police commander responded promptly that the matter is under control and that there is a 'no parking' sign in that area. When I questioned him about offenders who might ignore the sign, he thought briefly and said: "…We will clamp their wheels!"
In addition to the attempts to regulate and set forth procedures for the operation of the aerial vehicles, the relevant security agencies of the various countries are presumably hard at work finding security solutions for this evolving threat. The main difficulty will probably involve the need to cope with quadcopters operating in densely populated urban environments. Small vehicles flying at low levels not to mention hovering, are difficult to detect and identify to begin with. In an urban environment they are even more difficult to detect and identify. A Radar system designed to detect low-flying aircraft is installed at the White House, but it failed to detect the quadcopter that crashed on the lawn. The circumstances of the incidents that occurred in France, around the nuclear installations, were similar. As it turned out, in both cases the quadcopters were detected by the security personnel. This raises the question of how the security personnel should operate in such cases. A part of the regulation for this issue must address the procedures for employing force in order to neutralize (up to and including shooting down) aerial vehicles in areas specified as no-flying zones. Speaking about the use of live fire against quadcopters, we are aware of two incidents where quadcopters were shot down by ground fire. The first incident occurred in June 2013 in Istanbul when, during an anti-Erdogan demonstration, a quadcopter was spotted over the policemen operating riot control measures against the demonstrators. At some point, a policeman fired his pistol and the quadcopter crashed into the crowd. The potential crashing of such vehicles or their fragments into crowds is a problem of which the authorities must be aware, especially in urban environments. The second incident occurred in New Jersey, USA in 2015, when a civilian fired a shotgun at a quadcopter fitted with a camera that flew over his house. The quadcopter was hit and subsequently crashed. Apparently, at least with regard to the relevant response ranges in dense urban environments, the use of shotgun fire offers a certain advantage over regular pistol or rifle rounds. However, the use of non-lethal weapons, which offer an effective solution for intercepting quadcopters, should be considered first. One possible example is the use of paintball ammunition.
As in similar cases (e.g VBIED), the threat imposed by quadcopter bombs calls for an integrated solution that includes doctrinal elements, electronic resources and physical protection measures. Screening and jamming measures are already available, but most of them do not offer a satisfactory solution for various guidance types used in quadcopters. In the USA, an on-line service offers those wishing to prevent quadcopters from flying over their houses the option of entering their residential address, which bans the guidance system of the quadcopters from that area. It should be noted that this service is offered for quadcopters made by seven specific manufacturers at this stage. In any case, sophisticated hackers may be able to overcome such manufacturer-imposed restrictions.
In the USA and France, the authorities have already allocated state-of-the-art systems for detecting and identifying UAVs, but as advanced and as effective these systems may be in coping with military threats, their effectiveness is severely restricted with regard to the quadcopter threats and at this point they are geographically confined to highly sensitive areas.
The aspect of detection and identification is also evolving, and it seems that integrated systems utilizing Radar elements for detection and infrared sensors for identification will provide an effective solution, regardless of the cost issue which will undoubtedly constitute a substantial element in the ability to actually implement the solution.
Complementing the solution with resources other than security circuits based on electronic measures will necessitate the integration of various physical measures such as nets, blocking of openings to prevent quadcopter access and so forth.
The trend of technological development and enhanced UAV capabilities (with the emphasis on quadcopters) in the civilian market is expected to continue, at the same time as the significant drop in system prices. This challenge calls for a comprehensive solution with regard to such aspects as analyzing the threat, consolidating the solution and the professional guidance of the various agencies involved, and the sooner – the better.
The good news: the opponents have on their side civilian technology which, however advanced, is still amateurish at times. States, on the other hand, have on their side resources, budgets, measures and mainly manpower that make it possible for them to achieve technological developments that are more advanced by orders of magnitude. A proactive solution to the threat will be the outcome of cooperative alliances and prioritized resources diverted in that direction.
Meir Gershuni had served as a head of bureau in ISA (Israel Security Agency). He is the owner of a consulting firm that specializes in the design and execution of security layouts for critical infrastructures.